Efforts urged to safeguard minors in digital age

More minors are being victimized and abused on the internet, but young people are also using the internet in greater numbers to commit crimes, China's procurator-general said.

In response, prosecutorial authorities have begun promoting collaboration with multiple sectors for joint management of cyberspace to protect minors.

Although overall efforts to protect minors have been strengthened over the years, new and complex crimes involving young people have emerged recently as the nation forges ahead with its socioeconomic development, Zhang Jun, procurator-general of the Supreme People's Procuratorate, told China Daily in an exclusive interview on the sidelines of the ongoing annual two sessions in Beijing.

Preventing juveniles from committing crimes or being harmed is not only a legal issue, but also a social one, Zhang said, adding that procuratorates must shoulder their responsibility in promoting the overall protection of minors.

According to the SPP, from 2018 to 2022, one-sixth of sex crimes committed against minors involved "virtual sexual harassment" online or physical assaults after offenders contacted minors online.

Over the same period, the number of juveniles who were prosecuted for using the internet to commit crimes increased from 1,127 to 3,225.

"The Communist Party of China and the State have attached great importance to the protection of minors," Zhang said, citing the report of the 20th CPC National Congress approved in October. The report, which emphasized protecting the lawful rights and interests of women and children, improving mechanisms for collaboration between schools, families and society on education and improving the system for conducting comprehensive cyberspace management, has provided important guidance for the strengthening of the overall protection of minors.

In November 2020, the SPP sent a procuratorial suggestion to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology recommending cleaning up cyberspace for minors.

Last year, the SPP worked with the office of the national working group for cracking down on pornography and illegal publications to promote operations to protect youths.

"We adhere to a 'zero-tolerance' policy toward crimes that harm minors, and suggest strict punishment for people who commit crimes such as sexual assault, abuse and violence against minors, as well as those who infringe on minors' rights and interests via the internet," Zhang said.

In instances where minors are harassed in online chat rooms, the SPP has issued reference cases to help establish the principle that virtual and physical molestation are the same. It has also sent suggestions and initiated public interest litigation to resolve problems such as minors being addicted to the internet or exposed to inappropriate information.

Prosecutors have been using education as the primary method of correction for juvenile offenders and punishment as a secondary measure. "We pay more attention to the protection of juvenile victims' rights and interests in handling cases, and we have enhanced the legal supervision of cases involving minors, helping them overcome difficulties," he said.

However, he added that serious criminal offenses by juveniles will be severely punished.

To ensure the quality and effectiveness of juvenile protection, the SPP decided in 2021 to centralize the handling of criminal, civil, administrative and public interest cases involving minors under specialized juvenile prosecution agencies.

While handling cases involving minors, prosecutorial authorities should comprehensively look at whether any criminal offenses have occurred or whether there is suspicion of criminal activity. If a criminal case is confirmed, they should also assess whether there has been any harm to the civil, administrative or public interests of the minors involved in order to protect their legal rights and interests in an effective and timely manner.

According to the SPP, one-third of public interest litigation cases relating to minors last year resulted from prosecutorial reviews of juvenile criminal cases.

"Procuratorial organs will further improve their work and actively explore multidimensional and integrated methods that are more in line with the new characteristics of cases involving minors," Zhang said.

Joint efforts

To address new problems regarding juvenile protection — including juveniles committing crimes at younger ages and the lack of proper guardianship of some offenders — procuratorial organs have tightened supervision of law enforcement and deepened the cooperation with different groups such as schools, families and social organizations, Zhang said.

Family education centers have been established to offer guidance to minors involved in crimes or who lack guardianship, according to the SPP.

From 2018 to 2022, prosecutors nationwide visited about 110,000 primary and middle schools, supervised the rectification of about 15,000 risky situations on campuses and improved mechanisms for preventing sexual assault, harassment and bullying on campuses as well as punishing offenders.

In 2022, more than 680 people were prosecuted for campus violence and bullying, down 35.6 percent year-on-year.

In 2020, a system was established to check the history of people hired by industries where employees have close contact with minors. As a result, more than 6,800 people with criminal records, including sexual assault, abuse and trafficking, were dismissed.

A mandatory reporting system was also established in 2020 for people who work with minors, requiring them to report to public security officials anyone suspected of harming children. A total of 5,300 cases were detected and handled, and more than 700 people who failed to fulfill their mandatory reporting obligations were held accountable.

"Procuratorial organs will focus more on preventing and punishing crimes against minors, work closely with other authorities to actively integrate judicial protection into other related sectors of protection and create synergy to safeguard the healthy growth of minors," Zhang said.